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World Breastfeeding Week 2017 - A Call To Action

I've been pretty quiet over World Breastfeeding Week, as I am most years, to be honest. I'm conflicted by it, and I think many people don't fully understand what WBW is. Perhaps it's only through writing this blog that I've gained a much clearer sense myself. There seems to be this idea that it is simply about celebrating breastfeeding, and so we should talk about it, and share pics and stories. In fact, each year World Breastfeeding Week (WBW) has a defined purpose and intent. So, yes of course we should celebrate breastfeeding but that's not the core of what WBW is. What is the purpose for 2017?

WBW2017 will call on advocates and activists, decision-makes, and celebrants to forge new and purposeful partnerships. Together lets attract political support, media attention, participation of young people and widen our pool or celebrants and supporters

Forge New and purposeful partnerships. Attract political support? Is that what this week is doing?
What I see in my newsfeed, my emails and professional groups is lots of fabulous training made free this week. That is brilliant, and it helps me as a professional to help support those who are having problems with breastfeeding, but does it forge new and purposeful partnerships? Does it involve political decision makers? I have to say No.

What about media attention? Well let's face it, the media is, at best, "conflicted" on breastfeeding, and no less so in WBW. I just checked what my email digest of breastfeeding news stories has brought to me the last few days. This is the list of breastfeeding news story headlines in the order I received, from most recent to least recent:

1. Weird breastfeeding questions answered by lactation consultants. (Mmhmm, you don't need media training to understand the subliminal effect that putting those first 2 words together creates)
BTW, a sub story linked from this was:
Breastfeeding moms in developing nations have it even harder than in Canada (subtext here clearly is, "suck it up and stop complaining about lack of support.")

2. Breastfeeding is currently failing to reach recommended standards across the globe (yep, tell everyone breastfeeding is failing but not how to fix it - that'll help)

3. Mum who filmed herself breastfeeding her 4 year old daughter is called 'sick' by cruel online trolls.

4. Breastfeeding: Not a single country in the world today meets WHO, UNICEF standards (seems to me this is more of a celebration of formula marketing tbh)

5. Teach pupils about breastfeeding say Royal College doctors.

Now this last one is helpful. This is something which would genuinely widen the participation of young people and widen the pool of celebrants and supporters. That's 1 story out of the latest 5 that I received. Let's move on to the next 5:

6. Don't infantilise women. Tell them how tough breastfeeding can be. Ok this doesn't necessarily celebrate breastfeeding, but actually it's a message which I agree with - although I'd word it differently. Women do need to know that breastfeeding takes effort. So does birth. We infantilise women there too. We need to tell women about their strengths and how they can meet the challenges of birth and breastfeeding and to learn about the power in their bodies. This is my take on it.

7. Presidents daughter speaks out after backlash over her breastfeeding photo

8. Social media filling mums with anxiety over being perfect and breastfeeding (again anyone trained in media will understand how this associations breastfeeding with "perfection" and that this actually makes it seem to be something unattainable and unrealistic)

9. Binky Felsted admits she felt uncomfortable breastfeeding in public for the first time

10. Breastfeeding - the latest competition in the parenting game.

Sigh! So are you starting to see why I feel conflicted about World Breastfeeding Week? These stories and the negative media attention happens all year round, but more focus is placed on it during this week, and overwhelmingly the media is not working towards the goals of WBW2017. At the minute the media, in the main, doesn't seem to be a purposeful participant.

WBW2017 calls for advocates and activists to "attract political support". What are we doing to achieve that this week? We do know exactly what needs to be done. The Lancet report last year spelled out exactly what is needed to increase breastfeeding rates. I blogged about it in this piece about Jamie Oliver. The report clearly stated that there needed to be political will to promote, support and protect breastfeeding. Protection of breastfeeding already happening is the first step. That includes legislation to protect breastfeeding. Here in N.I. our legislation is the weakest around breastfeeding in all of the UK. Breastfeeding in public is protected in N.I. under the Sex Discrimination Act 1976. Under the act a woman is protected as part of her maternity status until 26 weeks post partum. Breastfeeding is a continuation of pregnancy and is the normal feeding method for a baby and therefore the breastfeeding dyad is protected in public. This, however is woefully inadequate. What about the 27 week old baby? The WHO recommend breastfeeding continues alongside complementary foods until 2 years and beyond. What about families who don't fit into the mainstream maternity model, not to mention that feeding isn't specifically mentioned.

Legislation in the rest of the UK is much stronger and has clearer intention. In England and Wales the law specifically mentions "breastfeeding" for the avoidance of any doubt. In Scotland the law specifically protects feeding of babies up to 2 years.

So what's happening here in NI. Well the previous Health Minister, Michelle O'Neill did commit last year to bringing stronger legislation into effect, but shortly after this Stormont collapsed. So far, during WBW2017 I have seen one local political voice on social media talk about legislation this week. That was Michelle Gildnernew. I know that Claire Hanna MLA is also speaking about legislation at the Belfast Breastival today. I'm disappointed not to be able to make the Breastival today. I'm out of the country, but I massively applaud the organisers of this event. This truely is an event which has worked to the goals of WBW2017. How do we as breastfeeding advocates and supporters carry this work forward? Well, I would suggest that we take action.

Claire Hanna and Michelle Gildernew are vocal on this issue as they are/have been breastfeeding mothers. They personally understand how women feel about breastfeeding in public and the support and protection needed. But how do public representatives become champions of a cause if they do not have a personal interest. Look at Owen Smith right now and his intervention over vaginal mesh in NI. This happened due to lobbying from affected women and is progressing even though Stormont is not functioning. Look at the effect that the Irish language demonstrations or marriage equality parades are having. They are changing the political conversations here. This paragraph is not meant to be a political statement about any party or cause, but what I am saying is that in order to make political change, there has to be pressure. Change only comes through pressure. It's the same in all things. In evolution, pressure from the environment causes mutation. In labour pressure causes birth. Pressure causes change.

So if we want WBW2017 to really make change, then where is the pressure? WE are the pressure... But only if we apply the pressure. If you want more support for breastfeeding here, if you are feeling disillusioned by WBW, then BE the pressure. Contact your MLA this week and tell them why this legislation is important. If Stormont doesn't look likely to return in the Autumn, don't let it drift. Write to the Secretary of State. Write to the Shadow Secretary of State. Demand this change in legislation. No one else is going to do this, if we don't.

One other thing I want to talk about in the context of "purposeful partnerships" is peer support. Supporting each other while we breastfeed our babies. Supporting our families, friends, neighbours and community members who breastfeed and teaching our young people about breastfeeding. That can be in person or it can be online. The kind of virtual communities developing now in breastfeeding support are incredible. Women supporting other women is incredibly powerful. When you support someone to breastfeed, whether that is physically helping, emotionally supporting or pointing them to where they can get the help they need - THAT is working to the purpose of WBW2017. Those are purposeful partnerships, and that also needs celebrated. I am so proud of the ripples that I see. I am so proud when I see someone who I supported in some small way months or years ago, pass that information to someone else and lovingly support another person to feed their baby. Well done to all of you out there doing your part. Change happens both ways - from the top through political action, and from the bottom, person to person.

Support and compassion can be our watchword, as can clever reaction to media. The media are well practised in encouraging women to critique other women. Online media, telephone phone ins, shock jock radio and TV are all about click bait. More clicks generates more revenue. They don't care about supporting women or about what babies get human milk and what babies get artificial milk. It's all about the money. Don't buy into it. If you see negative stories - don't share them. Don't engage. Create negative pressure. If you see positive stories, share the hell out of them. Create positive pressure. Use the networks and purposeful partnerships to do that.

Let's be very clear. How we feed our babies matter. There is a difference to the growing human body between human milk and the modified milk of another mammal. The research is clear and unequivocal, no matter how the media presents it. Breastfeeding protects against child infections, malocclusions, cancers, diabetes, and is associated with higher performance on intelligence tests, even when maternal IQ is accounted for.

Each year WBW leaves me conflicted, but perhaps that's because I haven't really responded to the fact that WBW is actually a Call To Action, and it is about new action each year. Not just about celebratory words and photos but action which generates change. It's about reinvigorating a lobby group which can get worn down during the year. Each year I find myself disillusioned about the lack of progress since last year. At the end of WBW this year I've decided to end the conflict by positively undertaking that Call To Action. I am going to write to my MLAs and MPs this week asking them how protections can be progressed in our current political system. I will create some pressure. Will you join me?

If you have any questions about a consultation or would like to arrange to meet, please get in touch.

About the author

Carol Smyth

I am an IBCLC (International Board Certified Lactation Consultant) in private practice in Northern Ireland and a La Leche League Leader with La Leche League of Ireland

Important Information

All material on this website is provided for educational purposes only. Online information cannot replace an in-person consultation with a qualified, independent International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) or your health care provider. If you are concerned about your health, or that of your child, consult with your health care provider regarding the advisability of any opinions or recommendations with respect to your individual situation.